IN A LOCAL MOOD

The Pacific Northwest is known for rainy, moody weather – but peel back a few layers and you’ll find that it’s more nuanced than that. It’s not all rain and clouds, in fact, the weather varies widely from season to season and from place to place. Summers are dry, sunny, and cool in contrast to autumn, winter, and spring when gray skies predominate. Seattle is often drizzly but fragrant lavender farms color the landscape to the north, where mountains prevent the clouds from releasing moisture. Out on the Olympic Peninsula, an extraordinary rainfall total of 140 inches/year (355 cm) supports temperate rainforests. Whether it’s dry like the Mediterranean, soaking wet, or somewhere in between, it’s still the Pacific Northwest.

1. Water, sky, rock, fir trees create a typical Pacific Northwest quartet.

Does the idea of a place marked by abundant rain conjure up dramatic downpours? Oddly enough, that picture is wrong. The Pacific Northwest doesn’t experience many sudden, violent turns in weather. Tornadoes and hurricanes are infrequent to non-existent. Lightning storms, dangerous heat waves, and deep freezes aren’t likely to crop up in the local forecast. Changes here tend to come gradually like the slow turn of a dial when you’re looking for a radio station. Weeks often go by with temperatures hovering within a small range. Granted, the region’s winter windstorms can toss trees around like matchsticks but most weather transitions are relatively quiet. Even the heavy rains brought by atmospheric rivers from far out in the Pacific may take days to release all their moisture. Seattle, the city with a reputation for rain, has an annual precipitation of only 37 inches (94 cm) compared to over 49 inches in parts of New York City and Houston.

2. PNW-style rain.

Long-time residents might disagree with my observations but a decade of living in the Pacific Northwest after a lifetime spent in the Northeast gives me a certain perspective. Visitors who’ve heard “It always rains in Seattle” are surprised to find almost no umbrellas on the streets. Why? Because the rain usually eases in almost imperceptibly, then fades in and out all day. People wear shorts and sandals all year, just adding a hoodie in winter. The locals are hardy! And there are sunbreaks. I hadn’t heard of sunbreaks until I moved here. They splash the landscape with cheer during winter months and interrupt the long, wet springs with welcome warmth. We have sunbreaks because outside of the summer, the skies are cloudy most of the time. Summer is what everyone waits for but it takes its time; Seattleites don’t expect to see consistently blue skies and warm temperatures until after July Fourth. Most of June is cool and gray, which is why we have “June Gloom.” That may sound dreary but the steady, gray tones and cool temperatures can get under your skin in a good way. Or you could move to Nevada.

3. Shrouds of Lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii) screen the view into the forest.

It’s not only the weather that sets the stage for Pacific Northwest moods. The prevalence of tall, dense, Douglas fir trees in the landscape plays a major role. Looming conifers may inject year-round green into the landscape (hence Seattle’s nickname, “Emerald City”) but they also reduce the amount of available light. Thick evergreen forests impart a mysterious, even foreboding quality to the landscape. Topography plays a role, too: the hilly, mountainous terrain limits views. Wide-open vistas are relegated to mountaintops or places with open water. Nothing seems clear and straightforward in this enigmatic region.

Last but hardly least, water is a crucial element in the Pacific Northwest. The region I’m talking about, loosely speaking everything west of the Cascade Range, north of California, and south of Alaska is profoundly affected by the presence of water. Because expanses of salt water have a moderating effect on temperatures, snowstorms are short-lived and heat waves are nothing compared to what the east coast experiences. Temperatures around Puget Sound seem to want to go back to where they were. Paradoxically, salt water evens out temperature extremes but it is the embodiment of change. Landmasses are steady presences; water is all about movement. From coastal waters to Puget Sound, to inland lakes and streams, the presence of water adds mutability to the landscape. With constantly changing colors and textures, bodies of water influence and define the moods of the Pacific Northwest.

4. On the coast, sea stacks, surf, and fitful skies.

Maybe I’ve been thinking about Pacific Northwest moods because we’ve just entered the rainy season. Days are shorter, skies are cloudy again and temperatures have cooled. This season seems to reflect the essence of the Pacific Northwest, though I know many locals would say it’s the beautifully clear, cool summers that make the region special. I think fall weather suits this landscape. Trees brood darkly, water seeps around every corner, and there’s a damp chill in the air. I think these photos convey that feeling.

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6. Dry grasses persisting through fall soften the landscape. (This photo uses slight intentional camera movement).

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8. Cormorants gather on an old pier off Q’elech’ilhch Park on Fidalgo Island.

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9. Bullwhip kelp afloat in the Salish Sea.
10. Snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus) gleam in a dark recess of the forest edge.
11. Seeding next year’s fields of wildflowers.
12. In the mountains rivers run wild after fall rains.
13. Douglas fir trees cast shadows over lakes.
14. Ninety miles from the ocean, the waves at this saltwater beach don’t normally pack much of a punch but their incessant rhythm soothes the soul.

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Was it all a dream –

I mean those old bygone days –

were they what they seemed?

All night long I lie awake

listening to autumn rain.

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Ryokan

From Almost Paradise, translated by Sam Hamill. Shambhala Publications, 2005.

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Unseasonable and Unreasonable

Yes, it’s word play, but seriously, the unseasonably cold weather here in the Pacific northwest seems thoroughly unreasonable, to me at least. (We could talk about the futility of pairing reason with weather, but that would be another conversation). Seattle’s airport, Sea-Tac, marked its snowiest February on record before we were even half way through the month. The airport might get its coldest February on record, too. We’ve been locked into a nasty pattern of snow and cold for most of the month now, with more snow possible this week.

Winter weather in this part of the world normally consists of a tedious parade of gray days with plenty of drizzly rain and temperatures hovering around the mid 40’s F (7 C). We don’t have a lot of below-freezing days, and when it snows, it usually melts away in a day or two. Usually. But “usually” is just a memory, now that we’re stuck in this unreasonably unseasonable February.

Combine at least six inches of snow on barely plowed roads, temperatures consistently at or below freezing, and a declared state of emergency and you’ve got the perfect storm of difficult winter weather for our area. Then there were the cancelled flights, schools closed for days, impassable highways…we just don’t do snow that well. In these conditions a lovely walk outdoors has become a rare treat. I hadn’t realized until now that I’ve become spoiled by the region’s normally mild weather and the easy access to extraordinary natural habitats.

Of course, what we’re experiencing is nothing compared to many places in the US, Canada, and other places where snow is serious business and cold lasts all winter long.  When I lived in New York I was used to shoveling out my car and slipping and sliding down the sidewalks. Since moving here though, I’ve acclimated to a different reality and I’m just not used to real winter anymore. Imagine my distress when for a week, my go-to coffee shop either didn’t open at all or closed early. During the worst of it, when Seattle suffered through its “Snopocalypse” I had my own crisis, i.e. “OMG where am I going to get my espresso?”

Lest I sound unreasonable, I don’t expect any sympathy, especially from my hardy friends in colder places. This is actually more about a sense of wonder that our blue, spinning earth continues to bring us so many surprises. May it always be so, and may nature always have the upper hand.

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It all began innocently enough with a light, rather picturesque coating of snow on the third of February.  At home, perfect little bird tracks in the snow and tiny ice balls in the nets protecting the fruit trees were a delightful novelty. The roads weren’t bad that day. Even the dirt road to Cranberry Lake was navigable, so I set out on a cold, careful walk in the woods. The forest was enchanting that afternoon, but my fingers got numb very quickly. I was grateful I had a warm home to return to.

 

1. A dusting of snow at Cranberry Lake.

 

2. Sword fern plants bowed down under coats of mealy-looking, icy snow in a dark corner of the woods.

 

3. The birds were busy, leaving a maze of tracks in the thin layer of snow under the feeders. I singled out one little hop for a black and white.

 

4. An enclosure to protect young fruit trees against deer was dotted with balls of ice.

 

The next day it was bitter cold and the roads were icy. I took pictures indoors, photographed a deer through the window, and caught up on things at home.

 

 

 

Soon the roads improved and the sun came out, but it was still very cold. I drove to a local park one day, hoping the road around it was passable. The boat dock sustained storm damage but – Yes! – the road was open. I drove happily through the woods at the proscribed 10 mph speed limit, stopping to photograph a twisted Maritime juniper tree. After 20 minutes in the cold I retreated back to the parking lot. Hearing the vibration of blasting music coming from a car, I muttered curses under my breath. Then I saw two young women sitting in their car, watching the sunset, and they seemed to be having a great time. Suddenly I realized the music was from the Bach Cello Suites! My frown turned to a smile. What prompted them to choose Bach instead of a hit from this week’s Top 100? I don’t know, and maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised by their choice. I gave them a thumbs up and a big smile. What a nice send-off to that icy-cold day.

 

6. Looking up into the dead branches of a Maritime juniper tree. Imagine standing under this noble tree while listening to a Bach Cello Suite.

 

7. The svelte mid-section of another maritime juniper tree.

 

8. As the sun set that day it left an orange glow behind the Olympic Mountains, 60 miles away.

 

A few days later there was another round of snow, this time in the form of big, wet flakes falling softly overnight, leaving clumps of the cottony stuff everywhere. It was still snowing that morning but I set out for the coffee shop anyway, creeping along on clean white roads. Hardly anyone was out. After getting coffee I drove around March Point and tried to photograph the snow falling but there was little light to work with, and once again my fingers numbed in minutes. Back at home, I noticed our little creek was an important source of fresh water for puffy little Dark-eyed Junco’s that were endlessly flitting back and forth between feeder and stream.

 

9. This little creek is dry as a bone in summer.

 

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10. Cattails wore top hats of snow over their fluffy seed heads on March Point.

 

11. Leaning stakes probably mark old shipping lanes at March Point, where oil refineries share space with herds of cattle and a Great blue heron rookery.

 

12. The snow thickened over Fidalgo Bay, smudging the horizon.

 

Three days later, more snow fell….is this getting repetitive? You bet it is! I prowled around the yard again….

 

13. A Sword fern seems to shrivel and shiver in the cold. These hardy, evergreen ferns should be OK except for clumps damaged by the weight of wet snow. I believe those clumps will gradually recoup as new fronds emerge to replace the ones that broke under the snow.

 

14. How long before these petite clumps of snow fall to the ground?

 

After that  snowstorm, another bout of cabin fever hit me so I made my way to Deception Pass State Park at a snail’s pace. The parking lot hadn’t been plowed but since it’s on a busy inter-island thoroughfare (and maybe because there are restrooms there), vehicles had been driving into the lot, leaving deep tracks in the slushy snow. I steered my little car along the tracks, stopped, and got out. The staircase under the bridge had been trampled just enough – I could walk down the stairs while clutching the railing (and feeling thankful for waterproof boots). Under the bridge is a network of trails that traces the forested edges of Deception Pass. Only a dusting of snow had filtered down through the thick canopy of trees there. The path was easy to follow but it was dark and cold in the woods. Again, I didn’t last long but just being in the woods, gratefully breathing fresh air, was a treat. A tiny mouse raced past me, oblivious to my presence. He pawed at the snow, searching for food, and then ran off into the dark woods. I thought about my warm home….

 

15. The forest is dark on a perimeter trail at Deception Pass State Park.

 

16. Last year’s Ocean Spray flower (Holodiscus discolor) drips with melting ice and snow.

 

17. The water racing through the pass that day was a cheerful turquoise color, and the view through the tall trees across to Pass Island was delightful.

 

18. The leathery, evergreen leaves of Salal (Gaultheria shallon) cheer up the forest floor in winter. The orange leaves are dead Redcedar leaves from the drought we had last summer. All the snow we’re getting now will help prevent drought in the months ahead.

 

19. The mouse. I enlarged and lightened the photo as much as I could, and it’s still hard to see him…that mouse was tiny!

 

Steps away from the parking lot is the Deception Pass bridge, which has a pedestrian walkway. It’s usually a spectacular view from the bridge, high over the rushing water, but on that day the view was reduced by moisture still hanging in the air. Far out on the water I could barely make out some cormorants, gulls, a few seals, and one sea lion – all working hard for their living.

 

20. Snow on the rocks below the bridge at Deception Pass.

 

21. North Beach from the Deception Pass bridge. No one walks the beach on this snowy day.

 

22. A phone photo taken on the road home that day.

 

One day I ventured off the island to Mount Vernon, a small city with a good food cooperative where I like to shop. On the way I passed acres of fallow, snowy fields. The sun is bright out on Skagit Flats. The orderly rows of crops with their striped furrows converging on the horizon was pleasing to see.

 

23. A bus for migrant workers sits in the field, waiting for Spring. It looks like this is one of Skagit Valley’s famous tulip fields – you can see them coming up. The snow won’t bother them a bit.

 

24. Afternoon sun throws a maze of shadows on a farm building.

 

The snow has melted a little now, but it’s still below freezing at night and not much above freezing during the day. Friday I took a walk at Bowman Bay, part of Deception Pass State Park.  I lingered on the trail until sunset. The tide was out and a lone Great blue heron was busy foraging in the quietly lapping waves. The sun felt good.

 

25. A Great blue heron picks its way through the riches of low tide.

 

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